Monday, April 24, 2006
The Hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal by Afua Cooper
Format: Hardcover; Pages: 224; $32.95(CAN)
Read the First Chapter of the book
"The Hanging of Angelique"
The oldest slave narrative in the world
Why the author wrote the book:
Afua Cooper, ( UofT History professor and established writer of non-fiction, history, and poetry), took 15 years to research material (including learning French) for "The Hanging of Angelique"; 15 years is a long time to be so passionately commited to a project but Afua Cooper did it because she believes slavery in Canada is a well-kept secret and was determined to shatter that silence.
This is a quote from the book's foreword by George Elliott Clarke:
"...The avoidance of Canada's sorry history of slavery and racism is natural. It is how Canadians prefer to understand themselves: we are a nation of good, Nordic, "pure". mainly white folks, as opposed to the lawless, hot-tempered, impure, mongrel Americans, with their messy history of slavery, civil war, segregation, assassinations, lynching,riots and constant social turmoil."
But the price of this flattering self-portrait is falsified history and self-destructive blindness (think of the Canadian-led expedition to the Congo in 1880 or, more recently, Somalia in 1992). Afua Cooper hopes to change that by introducing her readers to the life of Canada's best-known African-Canadian slave, Marie-Joseph Angélique.
Afua Cooper—writer, historian and poet—tells the astonishing story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a slave woman who was convicted of starting a fire that destroyed a large part of Montréal in April 1734. On appeal, her punishment of death by hanging was modified to an even crueler fate. No longer would she first have her hands cut off; the precursor to the gallows would now be forced to undergo "le torture extraordinaire," a brutalleg-crushing, to encourage her to name an accomplice—a white man, Angélique’s sometime lover. Cooper brings an unknown chapter in Canadian history brilliantly to life with this narrative of a rebellious Portuguese-born Black woman who refused to accept her indentured lot. In a dramatic retelling of Angélique’s life, Cooper sheds new light on what might have compelled a young woman to commit such a crime. At the same time, she completely demolishes the myth of a benign, slave-free Canada, revealing a damning centuries-old record of legally and culturally endorsed slavery. Not simply a tale of "Black" history, or even of Canadian history, "The Hanging of Angélique" is a universal story that resonates with a strong and insistent voice.
Why I liked this book:
Like most people I didn't know very much about the history of slavery in Canada and this book has truly opened my eyes. Ms. Cooper is a thorough researcher and as an introduction to the history of slavery, takes her readers to its source - Portugal, where she launches into a very enjoyable account of how Portugal came to dominate the world in the 15th century. She then goes on to describe how slaves became one of the most traded commodities in the world, surpassing gold, silk and so on, tracking their entry into the New World from Portugal with facts, stories and information that will interest and delight even the smallest history buff.
The personal story of Angelique, her arrival in Montreal and her troubled tenure with her owners is accurately narrated. I find Ms. Cooper never tries to plump up the tale with hoardes of descriptive paragraphs or long, reconstructed conversations, (except for Angélique's questioning by the court which is essential to the story). It is to the author's credit that her narration has a nice conversational style and rarely comes across as a dry retelling of history, on the contrary, you get so swept up into the life and times of Angelique that I found myself grimacing everytime I had to put the book down for unimportant activities like eating, sleeping and so on :)
Would I recommend this book? And to whom?
For anyone that enjoys history and/or stories about powerful women, this is the book for you. Angélique Marie-Joseph was an extraordinary woman - she may have been a slave but there was nothing subservient about her; her body may have been owned by her masters who paid cash for her, but her spirit wasn't. Cooper paints her as a free bird who just wouldn't cower down in the face of authority. She lived life on her own terms even if it meant losing it in the process. Surely that takes guts. To some, Angélique might come across as a villian, after all, she DID set fire to her mistress' house, but, we have to ask ourselves why she did it. Her naysayers would say it was so that she could run away with her white lover*, but thinking along those lines does Angélique a grave injustice. She may have been in love but the fire was set because she found her enslavement humiliating, suffocating and degrading.
The Canadian Board of Education should seriously consider making this book a history text book requiring mandatory reading. I doubt too many of our students have adequate information on slavery in Canada. Canada, with its "Underground Railroad", to which thousands of American slaves escaped to, is more known for being "Freedom's Land" than a slave-holding republic, but the truth is, slavery was institutionalized in this country for 206 years and we should stop going around as if it didn't exist.
*At Angelique's trial, the prosecution wasn't satisfied when Angelique admitted to setting the fire on her own. They wanted her to implicate her lover, a white man. The reason for this is that a woman setting a fire without an accomplice simply wasn't believable. In the thinking of those days, she was the weaker sex and could perform only petty crimes, not something as major as this, also, black people were considered childlike, with no sense of cunning or bravado that it would take to do arson, hence it was imperative that they find a "white" villian. Laughable, isn't it?